Like many long-standing British institutions, the National Gallery has decided that the time is now right to explore any historical links it might have to the slave trade. Although the founding of the gallery came in 1824, over a decade after the Slavery Abolition Act came into force in the UK, it is thought that some of its artworks and those who donated them could have been procured from wealth that was derived from slavery and exploitation. The National Gallery, which said that it would be investigating what links can be found to the slave trade among its trustees and donors in the coming time, published its often detailed research into its own links to slavery at the start of November.
The initial research the gallery has conducted covers the period after the institution’s foundation until about 1880. This includes the records relating to John Julius Angerstein, a businessman and underwriter whose personal collection of paintings formed the central part of the gallery’s collection when it first opened. As well as Angerstein, information covering many different individuals connected to the gallery in its embryonic was gathered. This data included information on trustees and donors as well as some of the painters and, in the case of portraits, their most high-profile subjects.
According to their report, now published online, over 65 people it investigated were found to have significant connections to the slave trade. A further group of about 30 people were identified by name. These were individuals whose association with the slave trade came from their attempts to end it through the abolitionist movement. Another 17 people that were involved with the gallery in some form during its early years were found to be linked to both slavery and abolition. According to the gallery, this demonstrated just how much slave ownership, profiteering from the trade of slaves, art acquisition and philanthropy crossed over one another in the 19th century.
The National Gallery said that it had begun looking back into the matter of slave-derived wealth and its art collection in 2018, well before the Black Lives Matter movement took off, leading some institutions to retrospectively address issues surrounding colonialism, racism and slavery. The gallery said that the entire project aimed to place under a spotlight the various links to slave-ownership that can be traced to the collection. “[We want to find out]… to what extent the profits from plantation slavery affected our early history,” a gallery statement read.
In order to discover how much or how little the National Gallery owed to the slave trade and the wealth derived from it, the gallery’s management team decided that they needed to take ‘an all-encompassing approach’. For them, this meant identifying everyone’s connections to slavery that had contributed to the gallery’s existence. This included direct links, such as plantation ownership, for example, as well as indirect connections, such as or those arising from professional or business relationships with slavers.
The gallery also said that it counted the third-party ownership of a piece of art that had formerly belonged to someone involved in the slave trade as such a connection. The researchers cited the example of the well-known portrait English painter, Thomas Gainsborough, in this regard. According to their work, Gainsborough took commissions from at least three portrait sitters who had well-established connections to the slave trade. Although these particular images are not in the National Gallery’s collection, it has other Gainsborough paintings in its ownership.
There again, the gallery’s initial chief benefactor, Angerstein, was found to have underwritten the insurance for a wide range of shipping companies, including those which transported thousands of West Africans to the then colonies in the New World. In addition, the report noted that Angerstein had acted as a trustee for more than one estate where enslaved people were set to work in both Grenada and Antigua. According to a gallery spokesperson, the idea is to share knowledge about the collection and its links to slavery but not to silence debate. No images would be removed from display because of their historical associations, the spokesperson confirmed.
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.